And it only got worse from there.
As Ben pulled in to work, he heaved a sigh. A few hours ago, he was doing battle with his maniacal, murdering sister-in-law. In a few minutes, he would be just another guy with a headset trying to help people hundreds of miles away set up software… with emphasis on the word “trying.” It was 11:53, so he still had two minutes before they would let him clock in at work. He made his way across the parking lot with feet that felt like lead, his heart aching in his chest and his shoulders slumped.
He wasn’t tired, far from it: this morning he had felt more alive than anything, but now… was this life? Was this what he had been trying for all those years? Was this what he had worked so hard in school for, been teased and spit on and had things thrown at him for? Was this what working hard in college, not going to parties, always getting his work in on time… was this what it got him? A temp job telling someone in Idaho to turn it off and back on again? He knew he was capable of so much, but he didn’t have the money to start his own business… he wouldn’t even know where to start, and then there was Lucy… he had to provide for Lucy, no matter what.
Ben punched in and made to turn down the hallway that led to the hive of sad people on headsets, but he was stopped almost immediately by an obese man in a garish Hawaiian shirt with thinning, gray hair and narrow-set, docile brown eyes.
“Hi, uh, Ben…” he seemed afraid of something, which was far from his usual jovial attitude.
“Hi, Mike,” Ben said off-handedly to his supervisor, “is something wrong?”
“Well, uh… yes. Could you step over here, please?”
He beckoned to an open door into one of the spare rooms that they used for training or meetings. A sense of dread began to wash over Ben as he stepped inside and heard the door latch close. There was barely room for the two large men to sit comfortably inside it, which did not assuage Ben’s worries. Immediately, his mind ran through a million possibilities: downsizing, lay-offs, outsourcing… or maybe they finally figured out that he broke through their Internet filter in his first month and had been browsing most of his days away? It’s not like he didn’t still have a passable resolution rate on his calls, anyway.
“Ben… you can’t be in here today,” Mike finally said after a long bout of labored breathing.
“Why?” Ben replied cautiously.
“Well, we’re… uh… we’re gonna hafta let you go.”
He knew it was coming, but there was something odd that cushioned the thunderbolt strike to the pit of his stomach. Something… relieving.
“May I ask why?”
“You missed work yesterday,” Mike responded automatically, “That’s one too many, we have to terminate.”
“That was my last one. I had one more day.”
“No, you had already used up your days.”
“Ummm…” Mike pulled out a small, torn off sheet of notebook paper from his breast pocket, “The last one was used up February 18th.”
“What, during the blizzard?! The police were telling people that they would get arrested if they even TRIED to drive.”
“We had twenty people make it in to work that day, regardless.”
Ben began to grow agitated.
“I live forty-five minutes away… you’re really going to count that?”
“We have to.”
“So you’re going to count the day I couldn’t drive, and I couldn’t even get out of my apartment building due to the snowfall… you’re going to say I should have been to work that day?”
“Uhhh… yes,” Mike was beginning to sweat more than usual.
“I can’t believe this. You know my resolution rates are excellent, right?”
“And you know that, when the other people here are chatting or drinking coffee, I’m working balls to the wall to make sure the customers get everything they need?”
“But what, Mike?”
“Well… you do work a lot. It makes other people uncomfortable. Your attitude–”
“My attitude is that I’m here to work first and make friends second, Mike. I was raised by farmers, and do you know how farmers work? They work until there’s no more work to be done… and then they work some more. If the rest of the clods in here want to be scared of me because of that, let them!”
“Please, Ben, don’t get upset,” Mike began to fidget in his seat, “I don’t want to have to call security.”
Ben turned to him with a look that must have been straight from Hell, because Mike shrunk in his seat. Ben closed his eyes to put out the fire, and swallowed a deep breath, forcing himself to be calm.
“Okay, Mike. I know it’s not your fault. I know you didn’t make these rules, you just have to follow them. After all, you can’t lose this job, can you?”
Mike shook his head dumbly.
“So I don’t blame you, Mike,” Ben said, standing up from the chair, “But I will say this. You know how you always joke about how terrible of a singer you are? I know that you only say that because you’re hoping somoene will tell you you’re actually good. So I’m just going to tell you right now that you aren’t. Stop singing in your cube, it’s pissing everyone off.”
Ben moved over to the door and put his hand on the latch.
“Don’t bother cleaning out my locker. I already did yesterday just in case you wanted to fire me for staying home during the blizzard. Guess I got to you before you got to me. Well…”
He popped open the door and let the cooler air waft into a room that was growing progressively humid.
“Be sure to give my wishes to everyone, Mike. I did twice the work of anyone here in half the time, so I’m sure you won’t have any trouble finding some imbecile to fill my chair. You call all fuck right off until corporate decides to save a few pennies shipping your jobs to Bangalore.”
There were a few murmurs and nervous whispers outside the open door, but Mike was too paralyzed to move from his chair.
“That’s right,” Ben repeated, “I said Bangalore! The company that owns this company’s company is looking to outsource. Try reading a paper sometime, idiots!”
There were now more murmurs as Ben turned back to Mike, who had changed from pale to completely white. Ben gave him a sarcastic salute and left.
“Don’t worry, boss… I’ll let myself out.”
On the way back across the parking lot, Ben was overwhelmed. He was happy to be rid of that place, but worried about how he left. He was overjoyed that he got to tell Mike off, but he was nervous about the future. And Lucy… what was he gonna tell Lucy? Be the time he got back to the Judge, he was crying… but he wasn’t exactly sure why. He sped out of the parking lot, slamming on the CD player to a song he’d been listening to a lot lately, a Billy Joel song. As he drove through the business park too fast and sang along too loud, he suddenly heard a familiar voice crash into his consciousness as the radio telekinetically switched off.
“Well, that was quite a performance.”
Ben hammered on the brakes and pulled off into yet another parking lot, his face now hot with embarrassment, frustration and emotion.
“Damn it, Tom! Not cool.”
“I wasn’t listening to the whole thing.”
“Bullshit you weren’t!”
“Listen, I just wanted to invite you to dinner Friday. Actually, the whole family. We’ve got an announcement.”
“I’ve got a phone, you know.”
“The music was too loud. You wouldn’t have heard it.”
“Uh huh… so you went straight for the mind-rape.”
“Just get outta my head, all right? I’ll come to your dinner party, don’t worry. What is it, six? Seven?”
“We’ll be there. Now leave me alone.”
There was no answer, so Ben decided to try to remember every embarrassing fact he could about his older brother instead. When he started running through Tom’s past girlfriends, he realized Tom was no longer listening, so he turned the radio back on and kept driving. If he hurried, he could surprise Lucy with a late lunch and the good or bad news, depending. They could afford it, for now… and hey, at least one dinner this week was going to be free, anyway. With a knot forming in the pit of his stomach, he picked up his phone and dialed speed number seven.
“Hey!” her voice was startled on the other end. Ben knew this was a mistake.
“I, uh… I got kicked out.”
“Work. They, uh…” he couldn’t bring himself to say the word, “they kicked me out. Remember the blizzard last winter?”
“They counted it as me taking a day off.”
He waited for a moment as the line went silent. A thousand different combinations, a million different reactions raced through his mind. How would she take this? How would she react? Finally, he got his answer.
“Well, that’s stupid!”
Ben breathed an audible sigh of relief, but Lucy hadn’t heard him. She had a full head of steam.
“You’re telling me… they fired you because you missed too many days… but they counted the day we literally couldn’t get out of our building?”
“Did they tell you this when it happened?”
“I guess I had to ask…”
“Well, that’s just bullshit.”
Despite it all, Ben found his lips creeping into a smile. It was times like this that he knew he’d made the right choice with Lucy. When the chips were down and things really went to Hell, she was there for him. His smile grew wider as his worry and his fear began to melt away, replaced with an odd sort of calm.
“We’ll talk about this more tonight when I get home. I’ve got stuff to do at work.”
“No problem. I’ll go home and work on something nice for dinner. Sound good?”
“That sounds lovely, sweetie. See you then.”
“Yeah…” Ben almost felt himself slipping away into this newfound sea of calm, “Okay. Love you.”
“Love you. Bye!”
The line cut off and Ben put down the phone. He let out a breath that emptied his lungs, staring off into space. Something inside him started to break, just a little, and as the pressure forced the break he simultaneously felt himself rising, as if being let free from a sinking vessel. After an eternity, he finally blinked, feeling his dry eyes scrape the inside of his eyelids. He started his car and drove home in silence, with nothing but the calming purr of a 2.7 liter V6 filling his ears. In a moment where everything should have been chaotic, it had never before seemed so clear.
And it only got worse from there.